David Petraeus had critics before scandal struck -- they just tended to fly under the radar.
In the wake of David Petraeus’ resignation as CIA director — and the extramarital affair that precipitated it — the press has been engaged in a great deal of soul-searching about its role in burnishing the general’s formidable legacy in the years since he appeared on a 2004 cover of Newsweek alongside the question, “Can This Man Save Iraq?”
“Like many in the press, nearly every national politician, and lots of members of Petraeus’ brain trust over the years, I played a role in the creation of the legend around David Petraeus,” Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman reflected over the weekend. “The biggest irony surrounding Petraeus’ unexpected downfall is that he became a casualty of the very publicity machine he cultivated to portray him as superhuman.”
Yes, Petraeus received remarkably favorable reviews from the press and from politicians on both sides of the aisle — particularly after spearheading the 2007 U.S. troop surge in Iraq and revamping and reviving the military’s counterinsurgency doctrine. But when it came to his handling of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the media, Petraeus had his detractors as well. In case you missed it amid the admiring coverage of the former four-star general in recent years, here’s a look at what some of his most vocal critics had to say.
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Petraeus is still lauded as the poster boy for Iraq — the general that inherited a broken war in 2007 and turned it around in a matter of months. But beneath Petraeus’ carefully constructed public image there have always been blemishes, just as there have always been quiet critics of the man journalist Peter Bergen described this week as the “most effective American military commander since Eisenhower.”
Petraeus’ first assignment after the 2003 invasion of Iraq was overseeing the occupation of Mosul, and his second was attempting to reform the disbanded Iraqi army. The Bush administration heralded both missions as unqualified successes, but neither was as clean as the rosy press coverage suggested. According to an anonymous diplomat quoted in the Guardian in 2007, Mosul “basically collapsed” after Petraeus left and the soldiers he trained were “nowhere to be seen.” Petraeus, the diplomat continued, was the “Teflon general.”
Around the same time, the former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, writing in the New York Review of Books, took Petraeus to task for ignoring warnings from America’s Kurdish allies about appointments he made to Mosul’s local government. “A few months after he left the city,” Galbraith recalled, “the Petraeus-appointed local police commander defected to the insurgency while the Sunni Arab police handed their weapons and uniforms over en masse to the insurgents.”
Even the general’s signature counterinsurgency doctrine, which was widely credited with reducing sectarian violence in Iraq after 2007, encountered early criticism from Army Col. Gian Gentile, an Iraq veteran who teaches at West Point. Counterinsurgency, he wrote in World Affairs Journal in 2008, was an “over-hyped shift in emphasis that, on the one hand, will not necessarily yield an American victory in Iraq, but on the other might well leave the United States Army crippled in future wars.”
It’s a criticism that must have rung true for those involved in America’s other war, the severely under-resourced campaign in Afghanistan that had been pushed to the backburner after the Iraqi invasion in 2003. Whatever else might be said about Petraeus’ strategy in Iraq, some argue it made victory in Afghanistan that much more unlikely given finite U.S. military resources. As Bob Woodward put it in Obama’s Wars, “This was a zero-sum game.”
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The rare bipartisan support Petraeus earned with the success of the surge in Iraq was on full display in the summer of 2010, when President Barack Obama tapped him to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top commander in Afghanistan. The Senate confirmed Petraeus by a vote of 99 to 0 (“Is Gen. David Petraeus too big to fail?” a Politico headline inquired at the time).
But Petraeus’ opponents didn’t wait in the shadows for long. A month into the general’s tenure, the former military officer Ralph Peters was already arguing that counterinsurgency would not work in Afghanistan like it did in Iraq, and that Petraeus should instead pursue the narrower counterterrorism strategy advocated by Vice President Joe Biden. (Some would say that’s exactly what he did.)
As the architect of Obama’s retooled “war of necessity,” Petraeus had to fend off critics ranging from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (R-OH) to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who reportedly shocked the military leader by calling on the United States to reduce military operations and end night raids in the country. Human rights groups criticized Petraeus’ plan to arm Afghan villagers while military analyst Bing West maintained that the United States had not committed enough troops to Afghanistan to make counterinsurgency work, and that the strategy actually undermined soldiers by asking them to be both fighters and nation-builders.
Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British ambassador to Afghanistan, issued a particularly scathing assessment of Petraeus’ record in the spring of 2011. “He has increased the violence, trebled the number of specialforces raids by British, American, Dutch and Australian special forces going out killing Taliban commanders, and there has been a lot more rather regrettable boasting from the military about the body count,” Cowper-Coles asserted. By the time Petraeus left his post that summer, the intelligence community was much more pessimistic than the Pentagon about the extent to which the United States had weakened the Taliban and stabilized Afghanistan, and a flurry of articles about the grim fate awaiting Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal in 2014 followed.
“President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan signals the beginning of the end for the ambitious counterinsurgency strategy that Army Gen. David Petraeus designed and has single-mindedly pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the Huffington Post’s David Wood wrote in June 2011. The journalist Michael Hastings was much harsher in a Rolling Stone book review. “Petraeus didn’t win in Afghanistan — unless one defines winning [in] the Charlie Sheen sense of the word,” he wrote. “Rather, he proposed and followed a counterinsurgency strategy that was expensive, bloody, and inconclusive.” Iraq, he added, “remains mired in brutal civil strife.”
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The revelations about Petraeus’ affair have prompted many people to question the general’s fervent outreach to the media — and the media’s eagerness to return the favor. But some journalists were ahead of their time. In an article on Petraeus for the New Statesman back in 2010, Mehdi Hasan noted that “[t]he Congressional and media hawks in the United States have acquiesced in the rise and political empowerment of a new cadre of generals and commanders committed to pushing policies — such as so-called small wars, based on counter-insurgency principles — that the US public has usually been sceptical of.” In the Daily Beast, Matt Yglesias argued that Petraeus’ genius lay in lowering expectations. In Iraq, Yglesias explained, the military leader had achieved a “largely a postmodern victory, a triumph of spin, narrative formation, and political psychology that ‘succeeded’ largely in extricating the country from a toxic political deadlock.”
Perhaps the most colorful critique came a year later, when Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) quoted Michael Hastings’ Charlie Sheen analogy on the House floor. “General Petraeus is giving us the Charlie Sheen counter-insurgency strategy, which is to give exclusive interviews to every major network, and to keep saying ‘we’re winning,’ and hope the public actually agrees with you,” she declared.
This time around, Petraeus isn’t going anywhere near a camera.
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Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF
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